Fiction > Harvard Classics > J.W. von Goethe > Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship > Criticisms and Interpretations > IV
J.W. von Goethe (1749–1832).  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction.  1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations
IV. By Edward Dowden
IT is a novel without a hero. When William first appears in this pseudo-epos, 1 we see him as a kind of tamer, less attractive Werther; less imaginative than Werther, less of a poet, but like Werther vague, unpractical, self-involved, indulging to excess a shallower sensibility and a poorer kind of passion. How he came by the name of Meister was unknown to Goethe, for his right name was Wilhelm Schüler. 2 William must start from low beginnings. He has small sense of his duties to others; he wastes himself in dreams of little profit; and it is out of such stuff as this that a worthy, useful, even admirable man is to be formed. It is enough at first if there lies within him the capacity of growth, the possibility of progress. But the way is long: delusions, snares, wanderings must be experienced; by error he must be delivered from error. In “Werther” Goethe had exhibited the ruin that comes upon an idealist who will not and cannot abandon his dreams and immoderate desire. In “Tasso” he had shown how a masculine prudence, an enlightened worldliness—presented in the person of Antonio—may come to the aid and deliverance of the idealist when he cannot deliver himself. 3 Here in “Wilhelm Meister” a foolish dreamer is to be formed into a true man; the vague and void of indefinite idealism is to be filled hereafter by a life of well-chosen, well-defined activity. He is to be educated not in the schools—it is now unhappily too late for that—but by the harder discipline of life; he is to be delivered from the splendid prison painted with idle visions into the liberty of modest well-doing.—From “New Studies in Literature” (1895).   1

Note 1.  So Goethe terms his novel in a letter to Schiller. [back]
Note 2.  Goethe to Schiller, December 6th, 1794. [back]
Note 3.  “Tasso” was conceived at a later date than “Wilhelm Meister,” but it was completed long before the completion of the novel. [back]



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